Unhappy Angels

Conducting barrel research at Glenmorangie Distillery in Tain, Scotland (photo: Lyn Farmer)

Conducting barrel research at Glenmorangie Distillery in Tain, Scotland (photo: Lyn Farmer)

A team of scientists at Napier University in Edinburgh thinks they've found a way to rob a group of thirsty angels. The angels hover in gaggles above the distilleries of Scotland, Cognac, Kentucky and elsewhere slurping up the alcohol that evaporates through the pores of oak barrels. The scientists believe they've found a way to reduce this evaporation by half, or more. The whisky lost to evaporation is called "the angels share," and it is not unreasonable to assume there are more than a few spirits disappointed over their lost spirit.

The stakes are considerable because millions of liters of whisky spend years in barrels, benefitting from a subtle leaching of oak compounds from the wood and the micro-oxygenation that transpires through the pores in the wood from which the barrel is constructed. Abdy Kermani, leader of the team of scientists at Napier's Center for Timber Engineering, was quoted in The Herald Scotland as saying they were approached by whisky behemoth Diageo to make the study. "We worked using the existing cask and improved that so that the reduction was at an absolute minimum," he said. He went on to say the redesign of the barrels maintained traditional materials (they didn't glue staves together, for example).

Since as much as 20 percent of a barrel's contents may be lost to "the angel's share" during the maturation process, any savings amounts to a significant amount of whisky. With 20 million barrels of whisky resting in Scotland's warehouses, and yearly exports exceeding 99 million 9-liter cases, we are talking about a lot of whisky in Scotland alone. Saving even 10 percent of the evaporation means a lot, not only in revenue for Diageo and other producers, but for the government since producers are taxed on what they keep, not what they lose. And it's good for us consumers because there could be more whisky available.

Professor Kermani did note that since many whiskies age for long periods, the study will have to continue for a total of 10 years before scientists are sure they have a consistent, workable solution. Of course, in angelic time, ten years is not so long, but given how uneasy I get if it takes 20 seconds longer to brew a cup of espresso, I'm not sure I can wait ten years to learn if I'll end up with a few drams more. I think I'll just have a dram now to pave the way for a real celebration later.